Intensity lacking in bad week’s final chapter
MORGANTOWN - Perhaps WVU athletic director Oliver Luck needs to call in a screenwriter.
Because this certainly isn't how West Virginia's football season was scripted.
With a nice stable of lethal offensive weapons in place and offensive whiz Dana Holgorsen taking over, the Mountaineers were not supposed to be batting .500 within the Big East after four league games.
Yet after downing WVU 38-35 on a beautiful Saturday in Litigation, er, Touchdown City, there were the Louisville players mockingly singing, "West Virginia, mountain mama ..." There was a Cardinal player being told his team was a 131/2-point underdog - and laughing.
It was a bad day for WVU's football team. It capped a bad week for the school's athletic department. The Big East filed a lawsuit against the Big 12-bound school on Friday. That evening, the men's basketball team, a Final Four participant in 2010, was stunned by a Division II team in an exhibition.
And then came Saturday's defeat. As one fan said exiting Milan Puskar Stadium, not a good day to be a Mountaineer wherever you may be. The sign hanging in the team weight room celebrating the Jan. 2, 2008 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma even seemed to be taunting.
What's happening? Is it bad karma because WVU is trying to exit the Big East early? Uh, probably not. Louisville coach Charlie Strong said the Big 12's choice of WVU over the Cardinals didn't come into play. ("I don't think our players even thought about that," said the coach.)
Yet there was Mountaineer quarterback Geno Smith hanging his head after another loss.
"I'm not going to coin us as losers," said Smith, "but we're not doing what it takes to win."
Especially not what it takes to reach preseason expectations. Holgorsen was expected to take this Mountaineer team and revive it. He was supposed to turn the clock back to the days of Rich Rodriguez. Back to the days when WVU won 11 games three straight seasons. Now he's on the same pace as Bill Stewart's last season - if the Mountaineers can win out.
West Virginia hasn't just lost its swagger, it's staggering.
Remember after the loss to LSU? Most gave West Virginia's team a pass, despite losing by 26. The Mountaineers bounced back with 55-10 and 43-16 victories over Bowling Green and Connecticut, respectively. A Big East title seemed the destiny.
But not now. Not after losses to Syracuse and Louisville and a close win over Rutgers. One has to question whether Holgorsen has lost this team, but what one can't question is that opponents are putting forth more effort, more intensity and enthusiasm than the Mountaineers.
Even defensive lineman Julian Miller acknowledges that.
"[Opponents] see that you're supposed to be the Big East favorites," Miller said. "You have to go out there and match their enthusiasm and intensity - their hard play. That's something we can do at any given point, but to put it together for a whole game, for four quarters, we're still having trouble doing that.
"I think that's haunted us these past couple of games."
Halloween is supposed to be over, but before 57,287 rowdy fans at Puskar Stadium, Louisville not only threw a scare into the Mountaineers, it demonized the hosts via that intensity and enthusiasm. Running back Victor Anderson was on the sideline pumping up his team. Strong was into the game.
"That's what it's all about," Strong said afterward. "I said to them, the only people we have right now are the guys in this room. It's all we have. So we're going to go out and play this game. The amazing thing is, it doesn't matter where you are, if you just go and play hard, and you go play with some energy and some emotion, who cares where you are?"
It's the edge for winning teams when the talent is close. Yes, WVU has more weapons than any team in the Big East, but there's not that much separation. Perhaps that's what Holgorsen has failed to get across to his team.
"You want to come into a game confident," Miller said. "If you don't go into a game expecting to win, why are you out there? We just need to execute better. All right, we can talk the talk; we need to start walking the walk."
Louisville strutted on Saturday. It responded to WVU's opening touchdown drive. Down by a score as the clock wound to halftime, the Cardinals threw to DeVante Parker, who slipped Mountaineer back Darwin Cook and went for a 26-yard gain to the 31. At halftime, the game was tied at 21.
West Virginia fumbled three times, losing two; the U of L didn't fumble. The victors were 5-of-5 in the red zone. West Virginia's Shawne Alston was stopped on fourth-and-1, while Louisville's Dominique Brown converted one late.
Perhaps the play of the game, though, wasn't when Brown converted on his fourth-down try, which certainly helped the Cards move toward its 38th point.
In my eyes, the play that won it was on third-and-8 a few plays prior.
Parker caught the ball and seemed destined to be caught by WVU cornerback Pat Miller short of a first down. The Cardinal, however, imposed his will to an 11-yard gain and a first down - while Miller missed.
When Louisville blocked a field goal kick and ran it back for a score, it wasn't by accident. Cardinal player Adrian Bushell did a full-body layout to block the kick. Andrew Johnson scooped it up and blazed the 82 yards.
Extra effort. That's what pushed Louisville to the victory. That's what West Virginia is lacking.
"We've got to fight, man," said WVU's Smith. "We've got to ignore the negativity and develop that knack to win."
Yes, place some blame on Holgorsen. He's not only in charge of infusing the offense with spark, but his team - his whole team. That's not only his offense out there, it's also his defense and special teams.
He has to inspire this Mountaineer team. It might need help, but it can still win the Big East. Holgorsen has to show he's a head coach now and not just an offensive coordinator elevated to the position.
"These next three games," Miller said, "we're going to have to play full-throttle for four quarters."
And get back to the script.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.